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Inside the Dark Heart of Competitive Pokemon

Your humble correspondent travels to the most adorable, violent sport there is to find out what the fuss is all about.

by Corbin Smith
Apr 18 2017, 5:15pm

Joshua Smith is a handsome, bearded 30-year-old in a Mewtwo baseball cap. He's come from Central Washington to Portland, Oregon, to compete in a Regional Pokemon Video Game Championships Masters Tournament at the Portland Convention Center. Joshua played Pokemon when he was younger, from the Red edition up until Crystal, but then he stopped. This is his first in-person VGC event. He has, however, been playing at Smogon University—a site that hosts competitive Pokemon games online—for the last year after getting hooked back in once Sun and Moon, the most recent editions of the long-running and much beloved turn-based RPG series, came out. Joshua isn't a particularly intense patron of any other video games, hasn't really played anything of note in "about ten years."

But in the last year, he has directed his considerable personal intensity toward the tactical grind of competitive Pokemon, unleashing—unballing?—his monsters to beat the shit out of other monsters to acquire marginal tactical adjustments, so much that he has even submitted himself to the instruction of an online coach, a veritable Pokemon Guru, whom he describes as an "awesome guy in St. Louis."

Depending on one's perspective, this is all rather strange. This would also be a matter of opinion: according to the organizers, 450,000 people competed in Pokemon events worldwide in 2016. But even to an outsider like me, the more I learned about the competitive structures wired into this game by spending time around people like Joshua, the more I came to realize that they're just like any other competitive hobbyist out there, looking for some complicated series of systems to master. It just so happens that theirs is a Japanese electronic cute monster-fighting throw down.

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